Dress Codes: You Are What You Wear


Samuel OgleWhile many students and their parents consider dress codes the bane of their existence, for much of American history, there would have been nothing they could do about it. Your clothes marked your social station and most likely your occupation. Today, if we don’t like the uniform we don’t have to take the job; however, in the colonial period, you often didn’t have a choice. If you were a slave, you had no say in the matter. If you were an indentured servant with a skill, your contract might be purchased by a master who needed that skill, otherwise you worked at whatever job your master had. Your clothes as a slave or indentured servant were provided by your master and by their style and quality, marked you as unfree. Children of free men were often bound out to whatever apprenticeship their parents could find, if there wasn’t a family business for them to work in. In this case, your clothes reflected your occupation and social standing. Since your clothes were made by the women of the household, you would often have only two complete outfits made from fabrics produced within the household. If you were wealthy, you needed to display your wealth and station. Wearing clothes that made people stare guaranteed that you would be taken for a gentile person. Since they belonged to the class of leisure, the clothes of the wealthy were much more delicate and ornate then those who had to labor for a living. For that reason, the wealthy purchased the fabrics for their clothes in Europe and had them shipped to American were they would then be custom made. Clothes in the colonial period provided a visual marker for your social station and occupation.

We aren’t all that different from our ancestors. We still use clothing to proclaim our wealth. However, we have one edge that the colonial lower classes did not have: We can buy relatively stylish clothes for very little money at stores such as Target and Walmart. It is far easier for the less well-to-do to blend in with those who are better off. As the runaway ads for slaves and servants demonstrate, the marked difference in the quality and style of clothing easily identified them as the “lowest sort.” Since a reward was offered, it made it far more likely that they would be identified and returned to their master. Their clothes were often made from durable cloth which would withstand hard, manual labor better. Since dying was an expensive process, their clothes would be undyed or from the cheapest colors. Liveried servant’s clothes reflected the status of their wealthy masters. While they would be more ornate then those of unliveried servants, their quality still marked them being from the lower sort. When servants and slaves did run away, they tried to take clothes of a better quality with them to help convey the impression that they were free. Some servants were given the cast-offs from the wealthy; however, from their condition, it was readily obvious that they were cast-offs. It was nearly impossible for those of the “lower sort” to pass themselves off as gentile.

The difference in clothing had another function. One of the precepts of the patronage system in place before the Revolution and the requirements of classical republicanism after the revolution, required that there be a class of leisurely gentlemen who were the only ones considered fit to govern. The clothing of the wealthy had to be unfit for any kind of labor that called for physical exertion. It was one of the ways they marked themselves as gentlemen who had the time and intellect to ponder the problems of society and govern the society accordingly. While gentile women would have work clothes for when they had to be more directly involved in supervising servants, they would never be seen by their own class in those clothes nor would they appear in public in them. Since it was thought that only those at the upper levels of society were qualified to govern, it was very important to the wealthy that they visually demonstrate their gentility.

So, perhaps after learning about dress codes of bygone eras, today’s students might arrive at the conclusion that today’s dress codes are fairly benign. While work uniforms might mark your station within a company or the school you attend, most dress codes still allow a wide latitude in clothing choice. It is far more difficult today to determine someone’s socio-economic status from their clothes.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic 2: The History of the Students’ Own State or Region 

Standard 2:   The history of students' own local community and how communities in North America varied long ago.

Standard 2A: The student understands the history of his or her local community.
K-4: Describe local community life long ago, including jobs, schooling, transportation, communication, religious observances, and recreation
3-4: Identify a problem in the community’s past, analyzing the different perspectives of those involved, and evaluate choices people had and the solution they chose

Standard 2B: The student understands how communities in North America varied long ago.
K-4: Draw upon written and visual sources and describe the historical development and daily life of a colonial community such as Plymouth, Williamsburg, St. Augustine, San Antonio, and Fort Vincennes, in order to create a historical narrative, mural, or dramatization of daily life in that place long ago.

Standard 3:  The people, events, problems, and ideas that created the history of their state.

Standard 3B: The student understands the history of the first European, African, and/or Asian-Pacific explorers and settlers who came to his or her state or region.

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)

Standard 2: How political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies 

Standard 2A: The student understands the roots of representative government and how political rights were defined. 
7-12: Analyze how the rise of individualism contributed to the idea of participatory government.
5-12: Compare how early colonies were established and governed.
9-12: Analyze how gender, property ownership, religion, and legal status affected political rights
7-12: Explain the social, economic, and political tensions that led to violent conflicts between the colonists and their governments.

Standard 2C: The student understands social and cultural change in British America. 
7-12: Explain how rising individualism challenged inherited ideas of hierarchy and deference and affected the ideal of community.

Standard 3A: The student understands colonial economic life and labor systems in the Americas. 
7-12: Explain mercantilism and evaluate how it influenced patterns of economic activity

Standard 3B: The student understands economic life and the development of labor systems in the English colonies
7-12: Compare the characteristics of free labor, indentured servitude, and chattel slavery.

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Runaway ad which describes the runaway as “an artful fellow and may probably change his Cloaths.”
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:   20 February 1752
    SOURCE:   The Maryland Gazette
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives
  2. DESCRIPTION: Two runaway ads: one for a servant and the other a slave.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:   26 March 1752
    SOURCE:   The Maryland Gazette
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives
  3. DESCRIPTION: Runaway ad. This servant took quite a few clothes with him.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED:   16 April 1752
    SOURCE:   The Maryland Gazette
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

See additional media resources below for additional examples.

Additional Instructional Resources

Take your Students on an Adventure, A History Field Trip to Colonial Maryland: The Hammond-Harwood House

Clothing from Long Ago. From the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute.

Then and Now: Life in Early America, 1740–1840. From The National Endowment for the Humanities.

Additional Media Resources

Historic Threads: Three Centuries of Clothing. From the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Collection: Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe. From the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe. Video from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Secondary Resources

Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Yale University Press, 2002

Bullock, Steven C. “A Mumper among the Gentle: Tom Bell, Colonial Confidence Man.” The William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 2. (April, 1998): 231-253.

Calvert, Karin. “Children in American Family Portraiture, 1670 to 1810.” The William and Mary Quarterly 39, no. 1. The Family in Early American History and Culture, (January, 1982): 87-113.

Carr, Lois Greene. “Emigration and the Standard of Living: The Seventeenth Century Chesapeake.” The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 2 (June, 1992): 271-291.

Copeland, Peter F. Working Dress in Colonial and Revolutionary America. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Donahue, Alice. Clothing and Class in Early America. Completed for: HIST 495A /713 New History in Old Baltimore SP2006, UMBC, Baltimore, MD

Ekirch, A. Roger. “Poverty, Class, and Dependence in Early America.” The Historical Journal 27, no. 2. (June, 1984): 490-502.

Galenson, David W. “’Middling People’ or ‘Common Sort’?: The Social Origins of Some Early Americans Reexamined.” The William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 3 (July, 1978): 499-524.

Galenson, David W. “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Anaysis,” The Journal of Economic History 44, no. 1 (March 1984): 1-26.

Hood, Adrienne D. “The Material World of Cloth: production and Use in Eighteenth-Century Rural Pennsylvania.” The William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 1, Material Culture in Early America (January 1996): 43-66.

Jones, Alice Hanson. “Wealth and Growth of the Thirteen Colonies: Some Implications.” The Journal of Economic History 44, no. 2. The tasks of Economic History, (June, 1984): 239-254.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “Presentment of Civility: English Reading of American Self-Presentation in the Early Years of Colonization.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1997): 193-228.

Land, Aubrey C. “Economic Base and Social Structure: The northern Chesapeake in the Eighteenth Century.” The Journal of Economic History 25, no. 4 (December, 1965): 639-654.

Menard, Russell R. “From Servant to Freeholder: Status Mobility and Property Accumulation in Seventeenth-Century Maryland,” The William and Mary Quarterly 30, no. 1, Chesapeake Society (January, 1973): 37-64.

Parker, George. “Merchants and Planters: American Portraits of the Colonial Period and the Early Republic.” Wisconsin Academy Review 43, no. 4 (Fall 1997), 22. Online at: LOOK UP

Prude, Jonathan. “To Look upon the “Lower Sort”: Runaway Ads and the Appearance of Unfree Laborers in America, 1750-1800.” The Journal of American History 78, no. 1. (June, 1991): 124-159.

Shannon, Timothy, J. “Dressing for Success on the Mohawk Frontier: Hendrick, William Johnson, and the Indian Fashion.” The William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1, (Material Culture in Early America. (January, 1996): 13-42.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Waldstreicher, David. “Reading the runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic.” The William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2, African and American Atlantic Worlds (April, 1999), 243-272.

Walsh, Lorena S. “Questions and Sources for Exploring the Standard of Living.” The William and Mary Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January 1988): 116-123.

White, Shane and Graham White. “Slave Clothing and African-American Culutre in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” Past and Present 148 (August 1995): 149-186.

White, Sophie. “’A baser commerce’: Retailing, Class, and Gender in French Colonial New Orleans.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 63, no. 3 (July 2006): 517-550.

Zakim, Michael. Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men’s Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Marie C. Hughes based on research by Alice Donahue. Updated by Nancy Bramucci Sheads, December 2012.


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